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On Cars, Trucks, and Beauty in the Backcountry: 4 Lessons from a Summer Roadtrip

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For my big summer vacation this year, I spent over a week traveling the mountain west, crossing four states (South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho), traversing eight national monuments and parks, and racking up over 2300 miles. Because even when I’m on vacation I can’t stop thinking about transportation, I thought I’d share a few observations from the trip:

#1: Your mileage will vary…and sometimes for the better!

Hyundai Accent and mountains

This Hyundai Accent brought me through the gorgeous countryside at an astounding 40+ mpg.

When I arrived in Sioux Falls, SD, I rented a brand-spanking-new 2014 Hyundai Accent, with its EPA-estimated 37 mpg highway rating perfect for saving gas on a road trip. So, it was with incredible surprise when one day in Yellowstone I realized I was averaging 45 mpg. I kept track of the gas receipts for the trip, which was nearly entirely on the highway, and I ended up averaging 40+ miles per gallon for the entire trip, about 10% better than even the EPA highway estimate.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the EPA label values are just estimates, and “actual results will vary for many reasons.” In this case, the long stretches of open highway and rolling hills, including large areas through national parks of steady moderate speeds of 45 mph, allowed me to beat EPA’s estimate of what I would get, even with the A/C at full blast on the 75 mph Montana highways. Your driving pattern and behavior affect your overall mileage, and there will always be some variance from expectations, give or take… and sometimes it can work out in your favor.

#2: Montana (and a number of other states, it turns out) don’t do regular smog certification

As someone who has spent the past fifteen years in California and now the DC metro area, the overwhelming majority of those as a car owner, I have accepted regular smog certification as a given. Every couple years, you take your car for a check-up and make sure it isn’t belching pollution everywhere behind you. It’s the best way to ensure that cars continue to meet over their lifetime the strong EPA emissions standards that UCS has fought so hard for, including this year’s Tier 3 standards which are set to go into effect in just a few years.

Road into Glacier National Park

Even on a cloudy day, the road through Glacier National Park is beautiful, so why not try to keep it that way?

So, you can imagine that when driving through some of the most beautiful areas of the country, I certainly wasn’t expecting to see so many cars blasting soot out of their tailpipes. To be fair, Montana is home to a high fraction of diesel-powered pick-ups, and diesel engines during moments of acceleration or while under heavy load (such as pulling a trailer) often run fuel-rich, generating more particulates. But I witnessed even modern gasoline vehicles running well out-of-tune, belching soot all over the beautiful countryside.

Considering that Missoula, Montana and surrounding areas near Glacier National Park are some of the very few areas in the country that do not meet EPA particulate matter standards for PM-10, it was surprising to feel like nothing was being done to both protect the public and keep that area gorgeous. And certainly no one wants a mouthful of soot when gaping in awe at the Big Sky.

#3: Even on the backroads, trucks with skirts are making inroads

Because aerodynamic devices on trailers work best at high speeds, I was surprised at just how many trailer skirts I saw on the backroad highways of Montana, where the speeds are a little lower than the freeways. In most of these cases it was likely that the local hauler had taken over the trailer from a long-haul tractor, particularly since so many of the tractors weren’t of the aerodynamic variety. But even in these applications aerodynamic trailer devices like skirts can help to save fuel. And at one point returning to the freeway I noticed that all five trucks in my view were wearing skirts—it’s great to see that efficient technologies such as these are already making headway, helping to put us on a path to Half the Oil.

#4: This country is beautiful, and I want to help keep it that way

This really isn’t something new, per se, but as I strode through forests and over mountains, gazed at the incredible geological formations, witnessed wildlife from bears to prairie dogs, I couldn’t help but stop and stare in awe at just how beautiful the country is. With climate change putting many of America’s most treasured places at risk, I appreciated how privileged I am to be working for an organization that uses science to help policymakers make the right decisions, especially as it affects our health and the environment.

Avalanche Lake

Who wouldn’t want to protect this view for generations to come? (Photo taken at Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana)

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About the author: Dave Cooke is a vehicles analyst in the Clean Vehicles Program, specializing in both light- and heavy-duty fuel economy. He conducts research on fuel efficiency technologies and the implications for oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions across the transportation sector. See Dave's full bio.

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